State Workers Caught In Calif. Minimum Wage Fight California politicians are battling over how to meet state workers' salaries in the midst of the latest budget crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to cut salaries of some 200,000 state workers temporarily down to minimum wage, but the state controller, John Chiang, is refusing to make the cuts.
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State Workers Caught In Calif. Minimum Wage Fight

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State Workers Caught In Calif. Minimum Wage Fight

State Workers Caught In Calif. Minimum Wage Fight

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California politicians are engaged in their never-ending battle over the state budget. In the latest skirmish, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants salaries for some 200,000 state workers reduced to minimum wage until a budget deal is reached. The state controller has refused to make the cuts; now, the dispute is in the courts. And as Tara Siler reports, the workers caught in the middle are fed up.

Ms. GWINNELL WILLIAMS: Good morning.

TARA SILER: Gwinnell Williams(ph) is making her monthly trip to the bank to purchase a cashier's check to pay her rent.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Its going to be for the amount of $1,150, but I know they'll add the $8 on there as well.

SILER: Williams has worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles for nine years. Regular furlough days over the past year and a half have already cut her pay by $11 an hour.

Ms. WILLIAMS: You do what you do. I mean, I can't pay off my credit cards that I know I need to pay, and I owe cable some money. As far as I'm concerned, they're just going to have to wait 'cause I need to pay my rent.

SILER: Williams is single, raising her teenage brother. She always watches her money closely, but the prospect that her pay may soon be cut to $7.25 an hour is creating a whole other level of stress. Williams says state workers like her are tired.

Ms. WILLIAMS: We're angry; we're fed up. It's like every year, this happens. Every year, we're always the fall guy.

SILER: But the pay cut is not a done deal - not yet, since it's tied up in the courts. Democratic politicians say the governor is using the minimum wage order as a blunt instrument, to force them to accept his budget. And state controller John Chung says the governor's order is illegal.

Mr. JOHN CHUNG (State Controller, California): If we violate federal labor laws, we will be on the hook - that will be California taxpayers - for over $8 billion. Why would you want to add billions more to the deficit of California?

SILER: Aaron McLear is a spokesman for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. AARON MCLEAR (Spokesman, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger): Frankly, it's political games that the controller is playing, and it's costing the state a lot of money.

SILER: McLear says in this tough budget climate, state workers can't be shielded from the economic realities.

Mr. MCLEAR: They are not entitled to not feel the effects that everybody else in the state is feeling. We're not going to cut everywhere in government but hold them harmless.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Wow. That's really kind of cold-blooded to say.

SILER: DMV employee Gwinnell Williams says she sacrificed plenty.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Why should I suffer? Why? I supply a service to people who need to drive this state, to drive on the streets. I supply services to people to have their ID so that they can work.

SILER: In addition to the 200,000 state workers, like Williams, whose wages could be cut, there are another 30,000 employees, like state doctors and lawyers, who won't get paid at all if the governor gets his way. That's because such professionals are exempt from federal minimum wage laws. On Wednesday, a judge will consider Governor Schwarzenegger's case to force the state controller to reduce worker paychecks.

For NPR News, I'm Tara Siler.

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